Court Reminds St. Louis City Council That Blocking Taxpayers On Social Media Violates 1st Amendment

Court Reminds St. Louis City Council That Blocking Taxpayers On Social Media Violates 1st Amendment

of the block-things-you-don’t-like-is-unconstitutional dept

No matter what you’ve heard on certain social media outlets, this is how the First Amendment actually works.

Free speech “heroes” can freely curtail your speech. However, the government may not. So, if you’re a government account working on social media services, you’ll find out when you’re screwing up. This decision [PDF] – what St. Louis lawmakers are targeting — reminding everyone of these uncomfortable facts. (h/t Courthouse News Service)

Social media platforms are public squares… at least as far as government officials are concerned. You may not like what your constituents have to say, but you are not allowed to silence them. That’s what a federal court in Missouri declared, following an absurd amount of precedent that made it clear to the city of St. of interacting with the city’s official account was unconstitutional.

As the order indicates, the jury trial on the constitutional issues got off to a somewhat strange start…at least in terms of a civil lawsuit.

Reed appeared at trial with counsel and, when called to testify, invoked the Fifth Amendment.

To be sure, the appeal to the Fifth is not an admission of guilt. But considering the only thing at stake was a court-ordered unblocking of St. Louis resident Sarah Felts’ Twitter account, this move seems a little strange. Given this twist, the court reached a compromise: Felts could submit a list of questions for the (now former – he retired two years after this lawsuit was filed) Board of Alderman president to be answered after the hearing concluded .

Everything in question here went down pretty harmless. And by that I mean it was rookie night on, where people said things and other people reacted terribly by not understanding how quickly antagonistic flotsam gets swept away by the tyranny of auto-refresh. Read on and be amused by the give-and-take that ultimately decided to be the equivalent of a palace coup by the Council of Science president.

In March 2009, Reed created a public Twitter account (the “Account”) to “put information out for people to … let them know what I’m up to.” Reed occasionally changed the account’s handle to indicate his candidacy for office, but between March 2009 and June 2020, @PresReed was the most used handle.

On his Twitter page, Reed described himself as “Father of 4 wonderful children, husband, public servant, lifelong Democrat, proud resident of St. Louis City, President of the Board of Trustees.”

Any member of the public could view Reed’s posts and either “like”, reply or “retweet” his posts.

On January 26, 2019, a Twitter account with the handle @ActionSTL tweeted: “Already asked to clarify his position on @CLOSEWorkhouse. He says we need to rework [sic] court system. Finally say yes, he does support the demand to close the workhouse, but we need to change the messaging around it.” Action St. Louis, a local, black-led advocacy organization, operates the @ActionSTL account.

Plaintiff was on Action St. Louis responded to the tweet saying: “What do you mean by ‘change the messaging around #CloseTheWorkhouse,’ @PresReed? #STLBOA #aldergeddon2019 #WokeVoterSTL.” The issue of closing the St. Louis Workhouse, a medium security institution and one of two prisons in the City, was a topic of political debate in January 2019. , as Action St. Louis .

Plaintiff believed that Reed’s statement, as reported by Action St. Louis, that “we need to change the messaging around the closure of the Workhouse” was an attempt to avoid dealing with the underlying issue. Plaintiff sent her tweet asking Reed what he meant by “change the message” and letting other Twitter users know that they could reach Reed via Twitter.

Later on the evening of January 26, 2019, Plaintiff attempted to access Reed’s Twitter profile page and learned that she had been blocked by Reed, meaning she could no longer see his tweets, or otherwise interact with his account.

According to Reed, the board president blocked the plaintiff because he believed that Felts’ question (and her instructions to contact Reed via Twitter) somehow implied “violence” against him and the Board of Education. No evidence was presented that any threats – violent or otherwise – followed this interaction.

In addition, the court notes that Reed intertwined his Twitter account with official business in 2019. The city’s website was changed to include a link to Reed’s Twitter account. This was followed by an embed from his Twitter feed. This feed remained live on the city’s website until Reed was sued by Sarah Felts, at which point it was removed, presumably by a city IT employee. Felts’ Twitter account remained blocked until after she filed the lawsuit in early 2021.

So, Reed made it clear that his Twitter account is also the Council President’s account. And the victim of his careless blocking was not freed from this infringement on her First Amendment rights until after she was involved in litigation. Given this series of events, it is not surprising that (former) Council President Reed would invoke the Fifth when testifying before a jury of the people he was supposed to serve.

The opinion recounts multiple times that Reed’s Twitter account was used to engage in city business, citing various statements related to legislation, city policy changes and Reed’s meetings with other local and federal politicians.

All of this indicates that the account managed by Reed was involved in government business and was used by Reed in his position as the president of the city’s Board of Education. So, there’s really no doubt that his blocking of Sarah Felts violated her rights.

At all relevant times, Reed was the final decision-maker for communications, including the use of social media, for the Office of the President of the Council of Science. At or near the time Plaintiff was initially blocked, Reed’s public Twitter account evolved into a management tool. In any event, by the time the Account was embedded on the City’s website in April 2019, while Plaintiff remained blocked, the Account was being operated by Reed as an official government account under color of law. The continued blocking of Plaintiff based on the content of her tweet is impermissible viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment. Thus, Plaintiff is entitled to judgment in her favor on her remaining claim for declaratory relief.

This is how the First Amendment actually works. The government can’t block your Twitter account simply because it doesn’t like what you’re saying. It happened here. And while the lawsuit ends with only a $1.00 award in nominal damages, it makes things better for St. Louis residents, as well as those experiencing the same kind of government bullshit elsewhere in this federal circuit. This is another ruling that clearly states that government officials cannot engage in the unjustified blocking of people that officials would rather not hear from. Elected officials represent and serve everyone in their jurisdictions. They cannot constitutionally pick and choose who they want to associate with.

Filed under: 1st amendment, blocking, free speech, government, lewis reed, missouri, politicians, sarah felt, social media

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